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Sundance’s ‘Returned’: Subtitles Are No Longer Something to Fear

'Borgen,' Israeli 'Homeland' draw fans on TV and streaming services

American audiences are so crazy about zombies they’ll even watch them speaking French, with subtitles. The cult-like success of “The Returned” on Sundance Channel (Stephen King has been tweeting about it) is helping to reverse U.S. networks’ traditional aversion to programs in foreign tongues.

The French series, originally titled “Les Revenants,” has quickly gained a following for its eerie vision of a remote mountain town where people appear to be returning from the dead, but without the typical gory trappings. It has the dubious distinction of having been named “the best show you’re not watching,” and it’s broken ground as one of the most widely seen subtitled series on American TV.

Shows like “Homeland,” “The Killing” and “The Bridge,” adapted from Israeli, Danish and Danish/Swedish series, respectively, are helping American viewers develop a deeper taste for brooding police officers, bleak landscapes and intense, bingeworthy hourlong dramas.

“The nature of content internationally has become so good,” says Sundance Channel prez Sarah Barnett. “It’s such an interconnected marketplace, the borders have dissolved.”

The Returned” is not alone — Los Angeles public TV station KCET also has seen enthusiastic viewers for “Borgen,” about a Danish female prime minister. And fans of Showtime’s “Homeland” have discovered “Prisoners of War,” the original Israeli series on which it was based, which is available on Hulu with English subtitles.

Subtitled films in movie theaters don’t find the audiences they did in the heyday of Truffaut and Bertolucci, so what makes U.S. platforms, already chock full of original drama series, think viewers are open to reading dialogue on the smallscreen?

Thank “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” for one. The original Millennium trilogy was made for TV in Sweden, but ended up as one of the year’s top foreign-language films when Music Box released it in theaters in the U.S., priming the audience for David Fincher’s bigscreen version.

So when “Dragon Tattoo” producer Zodiak brought “The Returned” to Music Box, the Chicago-based distrib snapped up video rights after seeing how popular it was in the U.K. and quickly licensed it to Sundance Channel.

“There are a zillion zombie films, but this is a different artistic approach,” says Music Box prexy William Schopf.

In the U.S., the idea of dubbing TV programs and movies has been largely abandoned. Barnett admits: “Subtitles signify an element of hard work. Some people embrace that. Many people don’t.”

But she feels that shows like “Les Revenants” are too good to subtitle. “The original version was just so compelling, we believed audiences wouldn’t want us to mess with that,” she explains, adding that audiences are particularly open to viewing genre material in its original version. “It’s lovably French to take a genre like zombies and give it an existential twist,” Barnett notes.

Another plus: Shows like “Returned” sport large, bold titles that are easy to read on today’s widescreen TVs. The program has attracted more than 4.5 million unique viewers season-to-date, and ends its eight-episode run Dec. 19.

Denmark’s “Borgen,” a straightforward dramatic series, also is hitting its stride. Mare Mazur, chief operating officer of KCET Link, thinks audiences have warmed to the show about a female prime minister because it’s “enormously relatable — an ensemble drama that’s not unfamiliar structurally.”

“Borgen” was already showing on Link, which is available on Dish and DirecTV nationwide, when Link merged with Los Angeles public station KCET. “We have an audience that has a lot of curiosity and interest in other cultures,” Mazur says. “It was a quiet little hit on Link.”

Even more interesting is how successful “Borgen” has been online for KCET, where it gets more viewers than PBS’ highest-rated show, “Doc Martin” (for PBS stations nationally, however, “Doc Martin” ranks below only “Downton Abbey”) signaling perhaps that younger auds are responding strongly to subtitled fare despite their constant multitasking.

While audiences have gotten used to the quietly intense cadences of foreign dramas, comedy seems like another frontier entirely. But Link has aired three seasons of Israeli sitcom “Arab Labor,” and in the spring the show will make the leap to KCET as well.

“It will be interesting to see how comedy translates,” Mazur says.

————–

WHAT TO WATCH

If you like …
“The Shield” try “Braquo” (French, Hulu)
“Homeland” try “Prisoners of War” (Israeli, Hulu)
“The Wire” try “Spiral” (French, Netflix)
“Walking Dead” try “The Returned” (French, Sundance/Music Box)
“The Good Wife” try “Borgen” (Danish, KCET Link)

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